With classes meeting remotely through the remainder of the semester, Fort Lewis College biology professor Steven Fenster began collecting and inventorying items he could donate to Mercy Regional Medical Center to help out during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fenster’s wife, Kate, had informed him Mercy had a good supply of items, such as N95 masks and other supplies like personal protective equipment, but other hospitals across the country were beginning to run short as they responded to a growing number of coronavirus patients.
“So I thought, well, why don’t we see what we can do. I just started gathering some stuff from our department with the help of the lab supervisor, Amy Benson, and then all of a sudden word got out around the campus that we are looking for supplies,” Fenster said.
Quickly, Fenster said he amassed “a decent amount” of gloves, goggles, PPE and some masks from the chemistry, physics, engineering and anthropology departments. Even Center of Southwest Studies ended up pitching in.
Fenster estimated a hundred pairs of goggles, a couple thousand pairs of gloves and a smaller number of masks and aprons were prepared for donation to Mercy and other regional medical providers.
“If there is a large outbreak of coronavirus here, and the hospital for some reason does run short, I hope we’ve made a small, a very small, dent in providing what they need. Right now, they seem to be fine,” he said. “We have a professor here who studies hantavirus, and she had respirators for field work that we were able to provide to a clinic in Shiprock, and I think that’s where we were able to make an immediate impact.”
Associate professor Erin Lehmer, who researches hantavirus in the Southwest, said respirators are used by students and professors in the field as they trap deer mice. They take blood samples and then release the little critters. The blood samples are then studied in the lab to predict how severe the hantavirus season will be for humans.
Lehmer said her neighbor, a pediatrician who works in an Indian Health Services clinic in Shiprock, mentioned that his clinic was short of PPE and other supplies, and the clinic could also use respirators.
“Well, I had cases of these respirators that I wasn’t using until the coming field season. And so that was one of the things that’s really in short supply, so we donated those,” she said.
Studying hantavirus and making predictions about how severe the season will be has similarities with modeling the severity of the impact of COVID-19, Lehmer said.
“I teach a wildlife disease class, and this pandemic is kind of following predictions of how we would expect something like this to happen. How it happens. How we would expect it to spread. It’s been kind of unfortunate to see it play out,” she said.
Despite watching the grim reality of COVID-19 playing out as predicted in classroom studies, Lehmer said the response in Durango to help during trying times has been heartwarming.
“It’s really neat how the community is coming together to pitch in for this,” she said. “It’s just a neat thing to see in a small community how people can make a big difference.”